Monthly Archives: September 2008

David Foster Wallace on Kafka

‘Alas’, said the mouse, ‘the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into’. ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.

– Kafka


What Kafka’s stories have is a grotesque and gorgeous and thoroughly modern complexity. Kafka’s humour — not only not neurotic, but anti-neurotic, heroically sane — is, finally, a religious humour, but religious in the manner of Kierkegaard and Rilke and the Psalms, a harrowing spirituality against which even Ms. O’Connor’s bloody grace seems a little bit easy, the souls at stake pre-made.
   And it is this, I think, that makes Kafka’s wit inaccessible to children whom our culture has trained to see jokes as entertainment and entertainment as reassurance. It’s not that students don’t ‘get’ Kafka’s humour but that we’ve taught them to see humour as something you get — the same way we’ve taught them that a self is something you just have. No wonder they cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke — that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home. It’s hard to put into words up at the blackboard, believe me. You can tell them that maybe it’s good that they don’t ‘get’ Kafka. You can ask them to imagine his art as a kind of door. To envision us readers coming up and pounding, not just wanting admission but needing it, we don’t know what it is but we can feel it, this total desperation to enter, pounding and pushing and kicking, etc. That, finally, the door opens… and it opens outward: we’ve been inside what we wanted all along. Das ist komisch.

David Foster Wallace


I met some people I thought I saw through within minutes, then was proven completely wrong. I met some people it took me years to get to know, then realised I didn’t know them at all. I met some people who changed me and others whom I changed. In some people’s eyes I changed likewise. Thinking back I don’t know that I really knew any of them, or they me. Sometimes I think I change from day to day, other times I think I’ve been the same from day one. Some days everyone I meet seems like the cats on my street, those little people who wear their gazes like masks, or the absence of masks, and who can be read only by each other, though they often seem confused by each other.

A parable

‘I dreamed I had in front of me’, he wrote, ‘this marvellous text which contained the narrative of a number of my dreams. Each dream had been condensed into a separate phrase and it was these phrases, strung together, that formed the text. Every phrase was pregnant with possibilities and meanings of a magical kind. I was both admiring this text and trying to explain it to someone. The person I was explaining it to may have been Gerard de Nerval, or maybe in the dream I was Nerval. As I woke up, there was one phrase in my head, the only one I can now recall. It was “The scent of Cybele”. At that moment all I knew about this phrase was that it was not one of the phrases in the text I had dreamed.’

John Welch